My sweet wife has struggled with chronic pain just about every day for almost three and a half years. As it became clear that this could be a long-term struggle for her, I was struggling myself with how to walk with her through it. There were lots of scary tests, new doctors, and frightening scenarios. And, of course, there was the pain! It was hard to adjust to this new normal. But God is good, and through the real pain he’s taught me a few real, glorious things about partnering with the hurting.
Good in Groaning
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope. . . For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:20, 22-23)
Groaning. We groan because the world is subjected to futility. Things are not as they should be. This means at least two things about our pain.
First, groaning is OK. God didn’t make this world for pain. It’s a product of the broken world we live in. God’s sovereignty in the situation does not mean we don’t admit that it’s hard or that we don’t like it. It is hard and we don’t like it! It’s part of the curse and we plead with God, “Take it away!” (2 Cor. 12:7–10).
Second, Romans 8 groaning is the groaning of childbirth. It is appropriate for a woman to groan in labor, and it is appropriate for believers to groan in suffering. Christians, more than any others, know there is something better ahead, something perfect — being forever face-to-face with Jesus, completely painless. Therefore, we groan in hope. We groan for the redemption of our bodies. When our bodies are redeemed, all sin and suffering will be put away and we will be free to worship Jesus in his pain-free presence.
Chronic pain is especially hard. It’s not how it should be, and it’s the everyday reality — often quietly — for so many around us. Long day after long day, we’re groaning in hope of the day when the pain will pass and we’ll be made new.
Dependence in Despair
It is freeing to groan in hope. But, groaning is only part of the answer in pain. God not only promises to deliver us through suffering, but with his keeping, he is working for our good in the suffering.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Paul is so utterly burdened that he despaired of life itself. It’s as if he had received a death sentence. People feeling deep or chronic pain will find themselves feeling this way. Paul’s interpretation of his trial is life-altering for how we view and experience suffering.
But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
The point of Paul’s pain was to give him more of God, through greater dependence on him. Dependence on God is not just the result of a trial. Dependence on God is the purpose for a trial. The pain is a radical, unexpected way that God cares for his children.
God means to strip away self-sufficiency so that we can have more of him. God means to strip away idols of health and comfort and strength to give us more of himself. These situations make us helpless in finding answers ourselves. There is often nothing to do except cry out to God. We begin to see that God is good to ordain suffering. There is purpose in pain.
More than groaning, there’s a glad, desperate dependence on God. We groan together and we are more deeply dependent on God than we ever could be without this pain. If the best gift God can give us is himself, then it is gracious for him to take even our health away (and that of those we love) if it means more of him for us.
Worshiping in Weakness
Groaning is good. Dependence on God is good. And there’s more.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10)
These verses help us to see that not only can we survive (groan), and rest (depend) in this suffering, but we can worship! Indeed, if God’s power is made perfect in weakness, then God is abundantly good to help us realize weaknesses so that his strength can be revealed in, and to, and even through us to others.
Suffering does not create weakness. Suffering highlights weakness. It takes suffering to help us realize our weakness. If God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, then how gracious is God to help us understand the reality of our weakness so that we can turn from self-sufficiency and boast in his power!
We can do more than survive in groaning and rest in dependence. We can worship in our weakness and even boast in our brokenness. If groaning is the boat of survival on a stormy sea, and dependence is the ballast we need to not be blown away, then worship is the wind in our sails to help us move forward in our joy in Christ.
Partners in Pain
In the beginning of our marriage, I didn’t know how to join Kelly in her pain. But now I realize daily that we are partners in this pain. It really is our pain. We continue to go through these cycles of groaning, dependence, and worship. We do it together. We do it imperfectly. It still breaks my heart to see her wince when she plays with our kids, or when she has to lie down for an hour just because we went on a walk.
The difficulty and heartbreak hasn’t gone away, and chronic pain has a way of planting seeds of ugly and sinful lies. But I’ve learned to cling to Jesus, the only true source of comfort, and do the best I can to point my wife to the one who suffered on our behalf. He knows every depth of suffering and is a merciful high priest. And we praise him that he gives us more of himself by stripping away other things. He gives and he takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!